Fellow Feature: Fahad Paryani

On the joy of math, helping those forgotten by the healthcare system, and the intersection of health and technology

Fahad Paryani is a recent alum of the 2019–20 Fellowship cohort studying applied math with a concentration in mathematical biology. We were able to talk with Fahad about his passion for using technology in the healthcare space to provide equitable and high-quality healthcare, what his varied research and volunteering experiences have taught him, and his time in the Fellowship.

Portrait of a young main with dark hair in business clothing in front of Doe Library.

“My name is Fahad Paryani and I am a rising senior studying applied math with a concentration in mathematical biology. I was actually born in Uganda and lived in Pakistan for a little bit, but I grew up and lived in Atlanta, Georgia for most of my life. I am passionate about the intersections between math, computer science, and biology, and hope to utilize the tools from each field in medicine. Outside of the classroom, I love to hike around the Bay Area, play basketball at the RSF, and analyze some of my favorite music albums.

Portrait of a young main with dark hair in business clothing next to a poster.
Portrait of a young main with dark hair in business clothing next to a poster.
Fahad presenting a poster at the national Gerontological Society of America annual scientific conference in Austin.

One of my earliest experiences of merging technology and healthcare was in a research program I was a part of the summer before I entered college. I was working at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta where I was creating a program to analyze infant speech behavior as a method to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Since there is no cure for ASD, one of the most critical things to do is detect whether a child is at high risk of developing ASD and intervene early. A common challenge for ASD patients is communication, and once a child is diagnosed with ASD they can undergo speech therapy that significantly improves their quality of life. This approach was a much cheaper, approachable, and overall more equitable method of identifying whether a child is at risk for ASD.

What amazed me about the experience was watching how scientists, engineers, and clinicians were collaborating in such a meaningful way to really help the autistic community in Atlanta. Working at Marcus really opened my eye to the value research and technology can have in providing equitable and high-quality healthcare. From that moment onward, I knew I wanted to be part of the movement to bring technology into the space of healthcare.

Thus, when I first learned about the Fung Fellowship I was very excited. The fellowship was driving forward this intersection of technology and health. Looking back, my overall experience in the fellowship has been extremely rewarding.

Oftentimes in our design challenges we were presented a pressing public health issue and asked to come up with some solution to it. The ambiguity on how to approach these issues was part of the challenge. In these moments is when I really believe the strength of my peer fellows shined. Being part of such a diverse cohort allowed us to learn from one another. We all had an idea, an insight, or a story to offer to one another. Building off each other’s strengths showed me the real power of working with a team.

“We all had an idea, an insight, or a story to offer to one another. Building off each other’s strengths showed me the real power of working with a team.”

Coming into Berkeley, I was confused like many other incoming freshmen. I knew I had a passion for medicine and helping others, but I also had interest in a vast array of fields. I was lost in the numerous potential majors. I had considered physics, data science, philosophy, chemistry, and even English at one point. However, I always found myself gravitating towards mathematics. I was intrigued with its generality and the capacity for math to be applied to any field but initially I was really scared to major in math, thinking, “I do not have what it takes.”

I consulted with a lot of people on what I should do but I ultimately realized I needed to find out for myself. I enrolled in Math 54, an introductory linear algebra and differential equations course, along with the adjunct course at the Student Learning Center (SLC). Branden, the lead SLC instructor, brought a ton of enthusiasm to linear algebra and really showed me the true joy of math. Math forces you outside your comfort zone. It can be intimidating not understanding concepts right away, but I learned that you have to be curious, brave, and persistent. Tackling these initial barriers opens up a whole world of ideas and tools.

With the increasing quantification happening in biology and medicine, there is an exciting frontier in these fields where math is becoming an important tool to approach many problems. The driving factor for me is the idea of bridging together ideas in biology, medicine, and math in order to solve problems that are not only interesting but impactful for the well being of others.

I am currently taking part of the STAR U research program through Columbia University, but due to COVID-19 my internship has gone remote. I was part of the program last year where I was developing a machine learning algorithm to detect various brain cell types of patients with and without Alzheimer’s. We analyzed the gene expression pattern of individual cells to identify unique markers for each cell type. This unique dataset allowed me to hypothesize interesting questions about the molecular mechanism of Alzheimer’s through a computational lens.

I am planning to build upon my research from last summer with new and exciting data. Previously, we had no idea where these cells were in the brain but with new sequencing technology we can extract the genetic information directly from the brain. This tells us where the cells are originally allowing us to make stronger hypotheses of what contributes to the cognitive degradation in Alzheimer’s, allowing better treatments to be designed

Six young adults standing with their arms around one another. In the background are glass windows showing a city skyline.
Six young adults standing with their arms around one another. In the background are glass windows showing a city skyline.
Fahad (second from the left) with his fellow peers of the STAR U program in New York City.

During the school year, I work at UCSF’s State Lab where we study the neurogenetics of autism. We use frog brains to study the development of the brain in order to answer fundamental questions about autism and developmental biology. It has been a really fun experience since it is my first wet lab and I enjoy bringing in my computational background. I am actively working on projects in bioinformatics and stem cell behavior modeling.

In the fellowship, one of my favorite design challenges was tackling social isolation at Berkeley. This issue is one that a lot of students, including myself, have experienced at some point. It was a really eye-opening experience delving into understanding some of the factors that contribute to loneliness on campus and the health impact it can have on an individual. Berkeley has a unique situation where after freshman year a majority of students move off campus, so opportunities to develop and maintain relationships becomes scarcer. As a result, my team focused on redesigning MLK Student Union to become a space where people can socialize, meet, and relax.

7 people pose for a group photo inside a room.
7 people pose for a group photo inside a room.
Fahad (far right) at the health clinic in Atlanta with the staff after a full day of volunteering.

As a first-generation student, my parents worked really hard to provide an opportunity for me and my brother to get an adequate education. Growing up in a new country was not easy and navigating the complex immigration system made our family feel isolated. We did not have regular access to healthcare and without insurance it was incredibly expensive to have regular appointments with the doctor. As I watched my dad suffer from different health issues, I felt confused and angered that he could not always get the adequate care he needed.

During this time I had come across a local health clinic that offered free services for people who were low-income and uninsured. I remember feeling so happy knowing there were people who cared about us and shortly after I was able to become a volunteer there. I was truly inspired by how compassionate the doctors were and their efforts in making sure patients felt comfortable and empowered. It can be really scary for patients who had never seen a health professional in their life and all of the sudden have one asking about some of the most intimate parts of their life.

I resonated with that. I guided patients through the clinic and even translated for them. I found the experience extremely rewarding and satisfying, knowing I was contributing something positive into someone’s life. I realized I wanted to be a part of making healthcare accessible and becoming a physician will allow me to be in a position to help the very people our healthcare system ignores. In addition, I hope to combine my passion for research and use technology as a platform to help underserved communities and ensure better access to healthcare.”

“I realized I wanted to be a part of making healthcare accessible and becoming a physician will allow me to be in a position to help the very people our healthcare system ignores.”

Connect with Fahad // As told to Lauren Leung

Fellow Features is a series dedicated to showcasing the Fung Fellowship community and learning more about their lives and their stories. If you’re interested in being featured, email funginstitute@berkeley.edu.

Applications for the Fung Fellowship are now open for the UC Berkeley transfer class of 2022! Learn more about the Fung Fellowship at fungfellows.berkeley.edu.

The Fung Fellowship at UC Berkeley is shaping the next generation of health, conservation, and technology leaders for a better world. 🌱